We all know a good game when we see one. There will always be dissenters—we’re people, after all—but for the most part, there’s a general consensus over what games are classics and what games are not. Not many out there will deny the brilliance of The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time or Half-Life 2, for instance. If any group of people were to ever secede from those opinions—of what’s “good” and what’s “bad”—we’d probably say that “they don’t know what they’re talking about,” or that “they just haven’t been playing the right stuff.” They’d be dummies, right?
I’m not so sure they would be. It’s not that Zelda or Half-Life or Mario or whatever aren’t good games—I certainly think they are. But a good while back, I came to the realization that I don’t know what makes a good game in the first place. I don’t think many gamers do, to be honest. And there’s really nothing wrong with that.
When I was younger, I used to subscribe to the idea that games were all about the “fun factor.” You know, the doctrine that says that all that the only meaningful aspect of a game’s quality is how purely enjoyable it is. If you were having a good time, then it would mean you were playing a good game. That’s all that mattered.
That view seems too simplistic to me now. There’s no doubt that enjoyability is important—you have to like the game you’re playing, after all—but there are just too many examples that seem to scoff at the idea of “fun” equaling “better.” Just look at something like Dark Souls. Is that fun? Is dying repeatedly enjoyable? Is failure pleasurable? To extent, sure, because you end up getting addicted to the struggle, but that’s not what makes a game like that “good.” Same idea goes for titles like Super Meat Boy, or Journey, or even Skyrim—all games that are often fun, but not wholly and purely worshipping at the altar of “fun factor” in the way a Mario or Halo would.
Instead, I looked to the words of Sid Meier, the famed designer behind such classics as Civilization and Pirates! This is a guy who knows what he’s talking about, a legend in the field for sure. So, when he once declared that “games are a series of interesting decisions,” I was compelled to listen to him.
The more I think about it, the more I agree with Mr. Meier. Good games provide choice, while the best games turn that capability for choice into a continuous set of compelling judgments.
Choice is everywhere. It’s unavoidable. This is especially the case in games, even though they, by definition, constrict the player’s free will—as in, you’re limited to a set of rules and structures whenever you play a game. The best games make the most out of those unavoidable choices, and set the stakes high enough to make you care whenever you choose something, even if you don’t realize that you’re making them.
That might sound confusing, so let me try to explain. Some good games make the fact that they are fundamentally centered on choice totally obvious. Take Mass Effect, for example. You can be good or bad, Paragon or Renegade. Certain moments of the game even give you a little prompt to do the “noble” thing or the “evil” thing—you can either warn the guy who’s about to be killed, or you can do the deed yourself, and so on. That’s kind of a ham-fisted way of introducing a set of interesting choices, but it’s effective nonetheless.
Let’s take it a step deeper. Think of a racer like Gran Turismo 5. Doesn’t seem like there’d be much room for choices, right? But look closer and you’ll see that decision-making is still the primary aspect of the game’s design. Do you pick the Ferrari that sacrifices handling for a higher top speed, or do you go with the Ford for just the opposite? Do you try to gun it through that tight corner and pray you can make it out unscathed? Or do you slow it down a bit and take the risk of losing your position? And what lap you should head into the pits? It goes on and on.
Choice isn’t a new phenomenon to gaming, though. Go all the way back to something like Tetris, which, for my money, is the most perfectly made game ever. Tetris isn’t always “fun.” When you really start to get on a roll and reach those later levels, it becomes incredibly stressful trying not to fail. Your palms get sweaty, your mind enters a sort of robotic trance, and you do everything you can not to let all your hard work fall apart. It isn’t a “good time,” by the strictest definitions of the words.
But Tetris is still a classic game, and it’s mostly because of how choice is so deeply implemented into its design. Literally every single move you make in Tetris is a decision. And, because it’s a game, those choices are always forced upon you. The blocks will not stop coming, and your stream of choices will not end until you stop playing. Where do you put that T-shaped block? Which way do you place the long one? How about the cube one? You have to think quickly in order to succeed. And because success is promised so long as you decide correctly, the game—and those choices—become interesting.
Of course, choice isn’t the only thing that makes a game good. In today’s era, a compelling world, a solid narrative, high production values, tight controls, and many other aspects are influential in how well a title is received. But it’ll usually be a fundamental tenet of any game we all generally like. This choice-centric design may not always be visible to the common eye, but once you see it, you’ll see it everywhere. If you don’t, chances are you’re won’t be enjoying yourself for much longer anyway.